Another billion served on the horizon

2/12/2004 - Houston Rockets

The signs outside its restaurants proclaim "Billions and Billions Served," so perhaps it was only a matter of time before officials with the world's leading fast-food company signed the NBA star from the world's most populous nation.

Six weeks after McDonald's elected not to re-sign Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant as its endorser, the fast-food giant announced the signing of Houston Rockets center Yao Ming on Thursday.

Yao signed a multi-year deal to be part of McDonald's global "I'm lovin' it campaign," according to Walt Riker, McDonald's vice president of corporate communications. "He will be our global brand ambassador," said Riker, who declined to reveal financial terms of the deal.

Signing the 7-foot-5 Yao enables McDonald's to capitalize not only on his growing popularity among NBA fans in the United States, but also on the 1.3 billion people in his homeland of China. A potential 300 million Chinese have access to his NBA games on television.

With averages of 16.5 points and nine rebounds per game, Yao edged Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal -- who's averaging 20.8 points and 10.9 rebounds -- in fan balloting to start the All-Star Game. Yao received almost 1.5 million votes, eighth among all All-Star vote-getters.

Since opening its first restaurant in China in 1990, McDonald's now has more than 560 restaurants in the country in approximately 70 cities and, according to published reports, plans on opening about 100 more franchises in 2004. The franchises in China make up less than 2 percent of the total number of McDonald's restaurants in the world.

Thanks to the McDonald's deal, it is believed that Yao now trails only LeBron James in off-the-court income. Including bonuses and royalties, the Cleveland Cavaliers rookie likely will make more than $25 million in off-the-court income this season. Yao can earn at least half that amount.

One source with knowledge of the McDonald's deal told ESPN.com that although the Chinese basketball governing association receives an undisclosed percentage of Yao's income, it will not receive any revenue from the McYao partnership.

Since being selected as the first pick in the 2002 NBA draft, Yao has signed endorsement deals with Upper Deck trading cards and China Unicom, a leading cell phone company. He also has appeared in national commercials for Gatorade, Visa and Apple.

Though he speaks little English in the spots, Yao has proven likable in the humorous plots written for him. In the Visa check card commercial, the salespeople in a New York souvenir shop are saying "yo" to Yao, who misinterprets what is being said and tries to correct the pronunciation of "yo" to his name. In Apple's Powerbook G4 ad, Yao looks on in envy at Verne Troyer (Troyer plays the character Mini-Me in the Austin Powers movies), who is sitting next to him on a flight and working with a larger version of the company's notebook computer.

"Yao is extremely selective in picking blue chip companies to align himself with," said Bill Sanders, marketing director of Team Yao, the group that represents the center. "McDonald's has a great history of working with athletes. They have produced fantastic ads and this alliance will help them further penetrate the Chinese market, which is one of their important goals."

Yao, who was recently named China's most popular celebrity by Forbes magazine, also will earn money on entertainment deals, including an upcoming documentary by Endgame Productions and a book written by ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher and published by Miramax.

In October, Yao signed an endorsement deal with Reebok, after his deal with Nike -- which carried over from his playing days with China's Shanghai Sharks -- expired. His signature shoes and apparel are expected to be released worldwide in the fall.

McDonald's, which is a sponsor of the Rockets, has been an NBA sponsor since 1990. In the past, it has used Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Bryant to pitch their burgers and fries. Bryant's three-year deal with the company expired on Dec. 31 and the company did not renew it; Bryant's pending sexual assault case is believed to have been a factor in the decision. Due to the court proceedings, Bryant's signature Nike shoe -- which was due for release this week -- has been temporarily shelved.

International business in China is expected to pick up with the Summer Olympics in Beijing a little more than four years away. McDonald's has been an official sponsor of the Olympics since the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, and the company is expected to continue its sponsorship through the 2008 Olympics, though a deal has yet to be consummated.

Due in part to Yao's presence, NBA commissioner David Stern announced in October the league's intention to open a marketing office in Shanghai in the near future.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com